As an occupational therapist, I am very aware of the importance of movement to a child’s development. Movement, and manipulating the environment, are how a very young child begins their learning process. A baby laying on their back will occasionally reach up and move their arms. If you hang a toy over their head, they will turn their head towards it. As they flail their arms about, they will happen to hit the toy and they will come to connect in their mind that if they move their arm near the toy, the toy will move. This is the beginning of fine and gross motor development and eye hand coordination. As they bat at the toy, if they are laying on the floor, they will topple over to one side and beginning the process of learning to roll. An older child learns about their body and the world around them by manipulating blocks with the control needed to stack them. Children need lots of running, jumping and climbing experiences to help their nervous systems mature, for them to learn about their body boundaries and regulate their ability to focus. If you pair this with imaginative play, whether it is super hero play, pretend shopping or cooking or caregiving, you find that children’s active play is a powerhouse for encouraging their development.
Then in comes the big bad media! I’m sure you’ve heard about the dangers of children watching too much TV, or playing computer games or using the phone. These types of activities are sedentary and do not encourage movement or manipulating the environment that all children need. But they are fun and many children love them. I am always amazed at the skills very young children have that enable them to work phones and computers on their own! So there are a lot of benefits to these media that are a major part of our lives.
It is important for children to have joy in their lives. They need to like what they are doing in the moment and have lots of fun things to look forward to. Computer games and youtube and other media seem to be quite enjoyable to many kids. Since enjoyment is important I wouldn’t want to ban these items or make arbitrary limits to their use. Exploring the internet and playing games DOES expose children to a lot of things. They can watch videos of places you could not go to visit, they can listen to so many songs that you could never buy them all. Many computer games provide experiences for children to learn visual and auditory discrimination, visual tracking, problem solving, as well as academic skills.
I know a young child who likes to listen to music videos on youtube and he dances along with them. Other children watch kid’s show on TV and dance along with the characters. You could have children sit on exercise balls while they watch and play. When my children were small, we had swings in front to the TV so they could swing while they watched. So watching and playing media does not necessarily mean that the person is being sedentary. If your child is open to suggestions on moving while using media, you could incorporate these ideas and come up with some of your own.
You could also come up with other things to do with your children that are more fun for them than media and involve manipulating the environment and moving around. Going to a park or other outdoor activity and throwing and kicking a ball is great if your child would want to do that. There are also toys and games you can play with. Find art projects, science activities, outings – all kinds of activities that you can find that could be more fun than media, especially if your child is “zoning out” on it.
Also, pay attention to your own use of these medias. If a child sees their parent constantly checking their phone or working on the computer, they will think that is the way to behave. If a child is indeed overusing media, then it may be time to work harder at connecting with them. There are lots of opportunities for a parent to play with their child or watch shows with them. If a child seems like they are too sedentary, then the parent or other caregiver can get moving with them. If a child seems bored, the parent or other caregiver can interact with them. Rather than taking away a game or phone, engage your child with you.
If you think your child is spending too much time with electronic devices, think about why you feel that way. If they are bored, then help them find more fun, preferably active things to do. If you think they are getting disconnected with “real life” then engage with them yourself – either by being with them and enjoying the electronic device, or doing some other activity with them. If you feel that the learning and experiences that electronic devices provide is somehow less than other kinds of experiences, try to pay attention with an open mind to your child while they interact with the electronic device. There may be more learning going on than you first think. It is good to be aware of the importance of movement and manipulating the environment. Use this awareness to enrich your child’s life, rather than taking away some beloved electronics that you think is limiting them.
Linda Velwest is an occupational therapist. she also teaches autism movement therapy classes and sells Discovery Toys as an educational consultant.